Perception and Introspection

Ever find yourself staring out into a natural landscape, almost intoxicated by the immediate sensory experience, and suddenly find yourself ruminating thoroughly within your inner world? This happens to me a lot, and when I came upon views like this one along the cascade trail in the Jefferson National Forest in Pembroke, Virginia, I couldn’t seem to avoid drifting off introspectively all along the winding path leading to the Cascade Falls. Whenever these experiences occur, I often find myself trying to figure out just what it is about our human nature that provides me with such a richness and depth of compelling experience WITHIN…simply by being able to perceive the natural world.

Reading an article on the state of artificial intelligence this morning in the Wall Street Journal, I started thinking about the differences between the nature of that intelligence and the human variety, and decided to probe for myself the extent to which the artificial variety has become a part of my daily experience. Since there are a number of devices and services involved in most of our daily lives these days, which contain components and sources that rely on basic artificial intelligence principles in order to serve our needs and to function in real time, I wondered to what degree that presence was truly evident and useful.

The article in the CIO Journal blog by Tom Loftus talked about the difference between AI smart and human smart:

“To me, I think the fundamental issue is what I call deep understanding versus shallow understanding,” said Charles Elkan, managing director and global head of machine learning at Goldman Sachs. Shallow understanding is the ability to answer a limited range of questions that are similar to each other, he said. Deep understanding, he said, implies broad context and broad knowledge. “The entire spectrum of current algorithms that we know for AI are not going to scale to human intelligence, let alone super-intelligence.”

Since I am typing these words on my laptop computer, it is immediately apparent that my thoughts are being immediately recorded, constantly edited, and eventually refined to my satisfaction (usually) through a reasonably and artificially intelligent machine, which is connected wirelessly to a network device that is connected to a router permitting access to a world-wide web of other computers and routing devices, all seamlessly communicating and providing feedback and information from an array of global resources, all while sitting on my sofa having my morning coffee, which was prepared automatically by my electronic coffee maker, in a room which has a voice activated Alexa, Bluetooth speakers, and a “smart” television, all capable of being connected to my “smartphone,” through which I can control, in significant ways, all of the other devices.

It hardly requires more than a passing familiarity with our 21st century technology to be able to conclude that, in a big way, some aspect of artificial intelligence has made virtually all of this activity possible. With a few keystrokes on my laptop, or the tapping of a few icons on my smartphone, I can connect and engage each of these devices to perform an astonishing array of functions, including a particularly interesting version of conversation with a lovely female sounding, voice-activated device with an apparent capability to understand, to an impressive degree, words and inquiries initiated by me.

In the spirit of intellectual curiosity, I decided to attempt to press the Alexa to push the boundaries of the device’s “intelligence,” to see if I might be able to get it to “make a connection,” between ideas that I bring up in a logical sequence. My first question asked about the definition of artificial intelligence:

Alexa, what is artificial intelligence?

“Artificial intelligence is usually defined as the branch of computer science that deal with writing computer programs that can solve problems creatively.”

(I noticed right away that Alexa made a grammatical error in saying “deal” instead of “deals.”)

Alexa, what is deep learning?

“Deep learning is part of a broader family of machine learning methods based on learning data representations as opposed to task-specific algorithms.”

Alexa, what is an algorithm?

“Algorithm is usually defined as a precise rule or set of rules, specifying how to solve some problem.”

Alexa, give me an example of an algorithm.

“Constraint is a random algorithm.”

Alexa, what is a constraint algorithm?

“In computational chemistry, a constraint algorithm is a method for satisfying the Newtonian motion of a rigid body which consists of mass points.”

While this exchange was interesting in view of interacting with a device using only my voice, and considering that Alexa’s responses to my questions generally were appropriate, the moment I went beyond the simple formulation of asking, “what is,” Alexa quickly resorted to the default response of “I’m not sure,” and “I don’t know the answer to that.” The impressive range of information at Alexa’s disposal, and the ability to respond to specific questions are both useful if you are doing a search, or want to know how to spell a word, but if you want to converse or ask further questions about the material provided, you will be disappointed. I told Alexa that I wanted to have a conversation, and was surprised to hear the device suggest that I engage “a social bot.”

Once I engaged this option, I was momentarily encouraged by the more conversational tone of the words that issued from the speaker. For a moment, the words seemed almost spontaneous, until, instead of saying, “yes,” to a suggestion, I responded with “sure.” Alexa’s chatty response was, “Oh, this is embarrassing, I’m not sure how to respond to what you said…would you like to talk about something else?” It quickly became apparent that there were a limited number of responses that I could give, and that my responses had to conform to a particular pattern or the device would revert to the default suggestion that we talk about something else. The responses became a little longer and there would occasionally be a humorous interjection when the exchange reached its limit, but I tired fairly quickly of having to conform to a formula in order to continue the exchange.

As interesting as even these limited options are in the context of “talking” to a machine, it is painfully obvious that there is really “no one home;” no “ghost in the machine.” There is a clear distinction between my interest in a conversation, and the machines ability to participate in any meaningful way. It is still a practical and interesting way to interact with an information source, and the advantages these devices provide are often surprising.

In the kitchen, there is another device called the “Echo Show,” which utilizes the same algorithms and methods as Alexa, but has the added advantage of being able to provide video results when the opportunity presents itself. When installing the device initially, the default “wake up” word was also Alexa, which immediately caused both devices to respond simultaneously, so I had to change the “wake up” word to “Echo,” in order not to engage the Alexa device at the same time. The advantages of having the option to display a variety of video responses is a clear enhancement of the original concept, but the option to conduct face-to-face video messaging and calls with others who have an Echo device requires giving access to contacts and phone numbers, and currently that seems a bit beyond my comfort zone regarding digital privacy and sharing.

The stark differences between the artificial intelligence supporting the machine and the natural intelligence I was using to interact with it, points to one of the key elements in discussing the potentials inherent in the future of AI development. No matter how sophisticated the sensors and algorithms or models of deep learning become, perception and processing alone are insufficient to produce the ability for introspection or the “inner sense” we experience as living biological and sentient beings. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy expresses it this way:

“Perception is achieved through dedicated organs such as eyes and ears, whereas there is no (literal) organ of introspection. “The ‘organ’ of introspection is attention, the orientation of which puts a subject in an appropriate relation to a targeted state” (Goldman 2006: 244). Perception ordinarily involves sensory experiences, whereas “No one thinks that one is aware of beliefs and thoughts by having sensations or quasi-sense-experiences of them” (Shoemaker 1994: 255). – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

All conscious humans with a nominally functional cognitive apparatus (brain, central nervous system, with basic life supporting and sensory systems intact) combined with sufficient life experience, and at least a minimal ability with language, eventually will acquire a degree of “inner sense experience,” which permits and accounts for our ability for introspection, which differs from simple perception in significant ways.

Wisdom and Spirit of the Universe

“Wisdom and Spirit of the universe!
Thou Soul that art the eternity of thought,
That givest to forms and images a breath
And everlasting motion, not in vain
By day or star-light thus from my first dawn
Of childhood didst thou intertwine for me
The passions that build up our human soul;
Not with the mean and vulgar works of man,
But with high objects, with enduring things—
With life and nature—purifying thus
The elements of feeling and of thought,
And sanctifying, by such discipline,
Both pain and fear, until we recognize
A grandeur in the beatings of the heart.

—excerpt from, “The Prelude,” an autobiographical poem by William Wordsworth, begun in 1798, completed in 1805, and published in 1850 after his death.

Standing on the shoreline the other day, staring out across the churning waters of the Atlantic Ocean, early in the morning on the East Coast of the United States, I reflected at length on recent events in my life, as we all sometimes do, on the anniversary of my birth, only this time, I did so on the occasion of having accumulated sixty-five years, which, in my mind at least, was sufficient to justify such purposeful reflection.

The celebratory events of the day before, although thoroughly pleasing and fully occupying the waking hours of my day, were, by most standards, quite ordinary as these events generally go, but also, in every way, greatly appreciated and precisely what I needed to inspire me to attempt to convert that purposeful reflection into some form of heartfelt expression.

As the morning light begins to rise into fullness, the sun struggles to pierce the “chaos of clouds.” I start to wander along the edge of the tidal movement, creeping ever slowly away from the peak of high tide. I walk slowly, dividing my gaze between what lies at my feet and what transpires in the sky, waiting for the sun to break through. Several small sea creatures, once alive, lay motionless in the sand, their lives now abandoned at the water’s edge. I pause briefly to mourn, and to ponder the loss.

The rising and receding of the tide, a perfect metaphor for the cycle of life, demonstrates well how we are joined in perfect unison with the natural world. The dawn brings the beginning of a new day, just as every birth signals the beginning of a new life. The rhythm and currents of the ocean mirror the rhythmic nature of all life, and with only a small effort, we can draw parallels from our own lives that compare well with the circumstances we observe in a natural setting.

Even the movement of the air can evoke a strange feeling of sameness with our subjective experience of the moment. The wind is mostly brisk, while rising and falling in a kind of erratic rhythm, occasionally failing to push hard enough against me, forcing me to periodically adjust my gait. As my thoughts recede, I lift my sights to the sky:

All of my barriers have fallen.
My mind slips into reverie;
As I slowly traverse the nearly deserted beach,
Everything all around me is in motion;
The relentless lapping of the waves—
The steady rising and falling of the rhythmic wind.
The early morning sun struggles
To squeak past the chaos of clouds;
Its light diffused behind a patchwork of puffy grayness.

I stop to stare at what might become an opening
In this fabric in the sky; impatient, I close my eyes.
Inhaling deeply, I hold my breath—
Then release it slowly, almost reluctantly.
I yearn for even a small bit of stillness,
But I cannot quell the water, wind and sky;
The only possibility for stillness is within me.
As I pause and ponder, a sudden urgency
Overtakes my senses—you are unmistakably near.

In my mind’s eye, I come upon a clearing.
A soft, flowing, musical soundtrack plays in my head;
I drift slowly, steadily toward the center of it all,
When the memory of you appears, my inner world swells,
Just as it always did right before you opened to me.
As you turn, I see your face—you smile;
I am floating as I approach, extending my hand;
Instinctively reciprocal, you reach out for mine—
Contact.

If you would like to hear me recite these words you can follow this link:

Enjoy!

The Soul That Rises With Us

There is a movement within me, an awareness—a deeply personal transcendent awareness—which, from my perspective, clearly does not originate from some temporal source in the world. There are those who might say such concepts are an illusion. I have often thought that they said such things to make the world seem more comprehensible—to make them feel better about not truly knowing.

The same might be said about some of the things that have happened to me, which seemed objectively real to me. I know my consciousness exists IN the world, and that I have become manifest as a sentient being in the physical world, and yet, everything within me harkens back to the beginning, starting with my first memories, and when I reflect on those earliest recollections of existing as a “self,” it inevitably reminds me of how mysterious life seemed at that time. There were so many questions, and so much of what took place in the world that evoked within me, a deep sense of mystery. William Wordsworth wrote:

“There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Appareled in celestial light,
The glory and freshness of a dream.

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Had hath elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:

–excerpt from Wordsworth’s poem, “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.”

We often think as we arrive into our advanced years that we have conquered some of these mysteries—that we have penetrated them somehow—at least to a degree. In some ways, of course, we actually have unraveled portions of what previously had been considered ineffable and mysterious.

The comprehension of brain physiology has been enormously illuminating for someone like me, and the advances in neuroscience have expanded our understanding of our mental life exponentially. It often makes me laugh when some prominent neuroscientist feels so confident to assert some “discovery” of why things work the way they do, or what makes us human.

Of all the aspects of our advances in understanding, of all the qualities of our human physiology that distinguish us as creatures who possess a uniquely “human perspective,” our grasp of how the human brain operates, and our ever-increasing knowledge of our particular neural architecture, explain with generally accepted agreement among neuroscientists, the basic fundamentals of how it is that we possess such an astonishing array of cognitive functions.

So much of our ability to make good use of our experience of the world is made possible by our higher cognitive functioning—by the firing of neurons, which send out electrical impulses, which propagate along the strings of dendrites, and by the transfer of ions across synapses—chemicals crossing cellular barriers between neurons—and by the eventual cooperation and coordination of whole brain regions. So much of sensation and comprehension and cognition require this exchange of energy and information, and even the small understanding that we currently possess is absolutely astonishing!

As miraculous as all of this seems, for me, it mostly shines a light on the SOURCE of consciousness, and the FOUNDATIONAL MECHANISM of our ability to be aware of our subjective experience. Everything I see and know and understand, and everything I feel, points toward an appreciation of our cognitive capacities, as a MEANS to access the phenomenon of human subjective experience, which is the link between our temporal existence and our true nature as manifestations of a non-physical reality. I recognize that there are cognitive illusions, and that there is bias, and limited apprehension by humanity of the physical universe currently.

As much as we see and understand, we see and understand so little, compared to what there IS to see and understand. It seems to me and to many others, that most of what we think we know only scratches the surface of what there is to know. Our fullest and most current understanding of our existence as physical beings in a physical universe only POINTS in the direction of the fullness of understanding that is achievable.

We constantly approach thresholds where all of our knowledge and complex scientific comprehension leave us empty-handed when they try to explain the true and full nature of our subjective experience of being alive as sentient cognitive beings. It’s not a failure of our scientific talents and it’s not an indictment of our human version of intelligence as being inadequate to the task.

Author and lifelong teacher, Joseph Campbell, who was the leading mythologist and former member of the literature faculty at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, expressed it best when he wrote that all of our efforts in life are not a search for meaning, but instead, he believed that “…we are seeking an experience of being alive that resonates with our innermost being and reality.” According to Campbell, the life experiences that we have are intended to help us “…feel the rapture of being alive.” In his view, myths are “clues to the spiritual potentialities of human life.”

With an expectation that you will find some causal link between brain physiology and the full explanation of the phenomenon of human subjective experience of consciousness, it seems to me, that you are setting yourself up for disappointment.

It is my most fervent hope in this life, that there is still sufficient time for me to share all that I have learned by being who I am, and that as many people as possible, hear the message—the song of the universe—the song of absolute balance in life—not giving everything away and not withholding anything, just being, surviving and helping anyone we can.

Unfortunately, not everyone sees the world as it could be—there are those who seek to control and manipulate rather than allow and cooperate. As a result, those of us who seek balance have to work hard to prevent as much suffering in the world as we can.

One day, all of us, regardless of what side of the fence we are on, will be confronted by circumstances which require our best life-affirming response. At that moment, we will know what to do. If we are able to do as much right as possible, the world will turn out better in the long run.

The World Outside of Our World

Scientist leaving the world. Engraving c.1520. Allegorical representation of changes in medieval conception or interpretation of the heavens when it was thought that the world was flat, discovering the point where heaven and earth meet, twentieth-century coloration of black-and-white engraving from The Atmosphere, by Camille Flammarion, 1888.

Anyone who ponders the possibility of an existence beyond that which we can know and experience as temporal beings, cannot determine with absolute certainty, while they inhabit their physical bodies, what the precise nature of the universe might fully entail; nor can we unambiguously describe the character and quality of the forces or energies which may exist outside of our temporal conscious awareness. As with many mysterious, ineffable, or extraordinary experiences, which may imply or potentially include the involvement of a transcendent component or aspect, we must approach our interpretation of them with the understanding that even though they may possibly be objectively real and seem subjectively potent for us personally, that the very nature of such an existence precludes any attempt to describe it well in temporal terms, and it may never yield its secrets while enduring any sort of empirical scrutiny.

Yet we do occasionally get glimpses of such possibilities–flashes of insight, moments when we sense a connection to something outside of ourselves, extraordinary inner events outside of our everyday experience–which suggest intimations of the existence of another world, which we can only describe as “other-worldly.” Getting to the heart of the matter can present us with a challenge to our intellect, and to our hearts and minds, to be sure, but such experiences can result occasionally in visceral, real, tangible, physical world responses, which are obviously inexplicable in any other way. We are forced to consider the possibility of an influence originating from a world whose nature crosses some kind of threshold between it and the world we know temporally.

Back in 2001, Columbia Pictures released a computer animated film entitled, “Final Fantasy: the Spirits Within,” which told the story of a future world in which scientists were pitted against mysterious forces invading and consuming all life forms they encountered, and a race to discover the true nature of the invaders featured two opposing worldviews: one which touted the power of science to construct a weapon which seemed to destroy the mysterious ghost-like creatures, and the other which proposed another more complex scientific approach involving an understanding of the nature of life on earth which included intimations of a spirit of the earth–Gaia. Ultimately, the powerful destructive weapon approach, directed by a materialistic and angry militant general, which nearly destroyed any hope for saving humanity, was defeated by a determined and life affirming scientific duo who solved the dilemma by piecing together the eight levels of the spirit of the earth.

I’ve included a link to the movie trailer if anyone is interested in further investigation:

The film was not a critical success in spite of extraordinary animation effects and a very compelling storyline, mostly because of the link the title suggested to the popular video game of the same name. Fortunately for me, I was unfamiliar with the game and enjoyed the movie on its own merit. What it suggested to me was the urgency to progress beyond our limited temporal existence and to discover a fuller and more holistic view of what the nature of life might actually be. It remains a potent message today, and regardless of what the ultimate explanation of the full nature of our existence might be, we must be willing to remain open to life in all its possibilities.

Is it possible that we exist not simply as a consequence of our cosmic and human evolution, but also by virtue of an underlying non-physical existence? While many aspects of our temporal reality remain outside of our comprehension currently, what would make any of us inclined to investigate, contemplate, and attempt to articulate the concept of a “transcendent reality,” when comprehension of the physical universe itself still remains beyond our current capabilities? The image above suggests a potential place to begin. Many mornings as a much younger man and occasionally over the years since then, I have had the opportunity to observe such spectacles as the one of the sunrise on the east coast at the Jersey Shore, and some others as the sun descended in the western sky in California, and the effect for me has always been palpably real of a deeper sense of connection to a kind of threshold between where life begins and where it ends temporally as the day begins at sunrise and ends at sunset.

“The relevance of conscious experience in generating (a) new understanding, (of an) intimate connection ( to intuition) with the core part of our inner selves, (is) becoming clearer. Intuition and the practices for intentionally enhancing it—meditation, prayer, deep contemplation, a developed sense of inner peace—can be seen as the key means for gaining access to this interior domain and then living it with an enlarged sense of purpose and direction. The human unconscious, which we experience only indirectly through subjective processes such as feelings, impressions, sensations, emotions, dreams and intuition, holds this invisible domain in place, always ready for awakening. Intuition is (humanity’s) communication link between (the) inner and outer minds and it bridges this all too familiar gap.” –© William H. Kautz/Center for Applied Intuition

The quote above came from a recent visit to the website for the Center for Applied Intuition in San Francisco, by Dr. Kautz, who earned an Sc.D. degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), conducted scientific and technical research at Stanford Research Institute (SRI International) for 35 years in the then emerging field of computer science, with additional activity in geophysics, health, chemistry and the social sciences. In 1977, he founded the Center for Applied Intuition (CAI) and was its Director for 15 years.

We often can have an intuitive sense of some existence beyond the temporal, regardless of how it might be configured or what might serve as its foundation or source. Traveling along the highways in Virginia, fully conscious and open to the concept of simultaneously existing in both worlds, observing the abundance of life all around me, seems to re-enforce the idea. Throughout human history, we see many varieties of approaches to explain or rationalize our ideas regarding the ineffable, but its existence as an objectively real possibility has been asserted by numerous sages, mystics, spiritual leaders, and even scientists throughout the ages. Carl Jung, the eminent Swiss psychiatrist was one such empiricist who clearly advocated a position which supports the idea in a clear way.

The existence of archetypes as primordial images, which we inherit as beings who possess a penetrating awareness of what goes on beyond what our senses tell us, suggests the potential of a non-ordinary state from which we come and to which we return when our time as temporal beings comes to an end. Dr.Kautz continues:

“Intuition may be regarded as a mere phenomenon to be studied by scholars, but it may also be seen as a natural part of life, just as we view intelligence, creativity, imagination, kindness, empathy, even the capacity to speak a language…(it) can now be defined as the human mental capability for drawing on an apparently unlimited source of knowledge (the collective unconscious or whichever name you prefer) to obtain almost any desired information, including that not accessible by common means. This capability bypasses the rational faculty, the familiar five senses and ordinary memory, which are not required and can even hinder the reception process.”

Awareness of our fullest and truest nature is only possible when we remain open to what may potentially explain our keen sense of intuition, imagination, and empathy for all life. If we can allow ourselves to extend what is possible, we may find a way to reach the world outside of our world.

Welcome To The New And Improved John’s Consciousness

Greetings to all of my readers and visitors here at John’s Consciousness!

I recently decided to take it up a notch here and acquired my own new domain, “Johns-Consciousness.com,” and have marked the occasion with the addition of a new theme as well. There have been some changes in my personal life that have prompted me to re-evaluate my approach to both the conduct of my daily life and to the subject which has occupied me almost constantly since I began this blog in earnest in January of 2011. This month, I will have completed my 65th year of life on Earth, and it occurred to me that a great deal has changed even in the almost eight years I have been blogging here at WordPress.

The image above represents one particular aspect of my interest in our subjective experience of human consciousness–one that I have not spoken of much since I began writing this blog. Since October 15, 2006, I have maintained an avatar presence on the website, SecondLife.com, and have had a number of interesting experiences and conversations with other participants from all over the world. For a while, I even maintained a residence and worked an actual paying position as a tour guide for an 18th century palace simulation. Many of the characters I have met along the way have since moved away or stopped visiting the website, but there are still plenty of adventures and opportunities available for anyone with the time and inclination to pursue them.

Part of the reason I decided to participate in the world of Second Life was my fascination with the concept of creating a “second” version of myself through the power of virtual reality technology, which was quite new back in the early 2000’s. As I floundered in the beginning steps towards citizenship, I discovered that the concept of living a virtual life, as opposed to what we like to describe as our “real life,” held many opportunities for contemplating the nature of human life, without many of the distractions of physically interacting in other “real-time” social environments. Much to my surprise, I found the experiences strangely compelling at times, and I continue to enjoy observing and interacting as the opportunity presents itself.

Of course, participating in the “real world,” can often seem unreal at times, and anyone who has been following along here at John’s Consciousness knows that I have had more than my share of seemingly “unreal” experiences. The question that naturally presents itself when you look up at a spectacular and peculiar sky, or experience any sort of “other-worldly” encounter in our daily travels is “What the heck is going on?” If we are paying attention and fully living in the moment when something inexplicable occurs, or perhaps when we suddenly wake up in the middle of the night during a particularly vivid or startling dream, there is a moment or two where we are not at all certain about what is real and what is unreal. It can sometimes take us momentarily to a place where we may question our perceptions and our understanding of our very human nature.

Recently, I left the world of working a job outside the home every day, which had sustained me since I first started working way back in June of 1968. For fifty years, no matter what aspirations I held or what goals I was pursuing outside of work, raising my six children, and supporting my family in all things, I was never really able to give my writing and research and contemplation the full attention they deserved. There were times when I nearly gave up on the idea of fulfilling these aspirations altogether. When the day finally came to step away, it felt like a great stone had been lifted from my chest. I’m still in the early days of disbelief and astonishment at the thought of turning 65 this month, but slowly I’m beginning to feel the compelling sense of participating in a transition to another stage of my life, and I am at least hopeful that it will bear fruit at some point.

Albert Einstein’s quote reminds me that all of the feeling and longing that I have held on to these many years has indeed been a source of creativity in my endeavors, and a motivating force that has kept my blog humming along these past seven and a half years. I hope you will all ride along with me as I navigate through the next phase of my endeavors here, and that we can share in the process of discovery together in the time to come.

The Extraordinary in the Ordinary


Recently, I went for a walk–wandering around the neighborhood–and when I came back, I took a look around the house and was struck by a few particular moments of the extraordinary, waiting to be discovered in the ordinary. Every year around this time, all of nature usually comes alive simultaneously, and it is always a relief to once again observe the greenery coming back to life, but this year, nature seems to be bursting out all over the yard, and it almost seems to be trying to swallow the house whole. The image above was taken in a field near the house which I snapped while walking, and it felt relatively safe and ordinary as I paused to capture the scene.

Once I came along the sidewalk in front of the house, I was taken by surprise by what seemed like a jungle creeping up on the house, with our cat, Mittens apparently oblivious to the impending attack. On the right hand side, next to the yellow rose bush, what I had earlier dismissed as simply a small new tree, has suddenly taken root and shot up like a beanstalk. The ivy in the center of the image, which had always seemed like a nice decoration around the light pole at the end of the walkway, now appears to have engulphed the whole thing. Yes, there is a light post under all those leaves.


Honeysuckle has completely obscured the rhododendron bushes on the left side, and while that tangled mess has a lovely scent, you almost can’t even tell there is a bush alive under all that.

It won’t be long before the mailman will have to bring a machete with him to get to the mailbox!

The ivy is starting to take over the whole front of the house.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s even creeping up to grab anyone coming out the door.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s getting a bit ridiculous now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But lo and behold! Sitting out on the back porch I notice that a maple seedling from the backyard tree has taken root in the space between the boards. In the most unexpected places, and against tremendous odds, nature has found a way to flourish! Even though it’s clearly doomed in the long run, I couldn’t help but stare in amazement at how persistent and unflinchingly the plants and trees and everything alive is growing all around me.

The natural world, of which we are an integral part, shows us even in these humble discoveries on an ordinary day, how it is that we can approach life as something extraordinary, which needs to be appreciated and which should provoke us with wonder and inspire awe. Imperceptibly, but relentlessly, every plant and tree persists under the most daunting circumstances. We cut it out, and it grows back. We rip it out by the roots, and the seedlings drop and the process begins again. Every year, with lethal intent, I decimate the ivy and chop it to bits, and no matter what I do, life finds a way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Apparently unfazed by it all, our cat, Princess, seems blissfully unaware of the tumultuous orchestration of Mother Nature all around her, and found a quiet spot on an old carpet remnant to curl up for an afternoon nap.  As the mammal with the big brain and a penetrating cognitive awareness, I find myself curiously undone by all of these ordinary wonders, and equally cognizant of the extraordinary aspects which serve as the foundation for all life and existence in our little corner of the world.  Time to dig a little deeper…..

Countryside Contemplation

View from Blue Ridge Parkway in southwestern Virginia

There are few experiences for frequent highway travelers that can compare with the exceptional countryside road views available along the highways within the Blue Ridge Mountain range, which stretches from northern Georgia all the way up to Pennsylvania.

Recent camping trips have resulted in several wonderful opportunities for both sustained hours of contemplation, and for producing some remarkable images along the variety of roads and some lovely trails leading through the scenic areas surrounding the campgrounds in Virginia. As a consequence of being able to enjoy these opportunities, a number of avenues of exploration have opened for me, and in the coming weeks I hope to share postings which will include the fruits of those opportunities, both in the visual sense through photo essays, as well as in a spiritual and philosophical sense through the expression of my contemplative efforts and recorded thoughts from the numerous visits to the various natural landscapes in these areas.

Traversing the countryside in a motor vehicle is one of the best ways to get a broad appreciation of the scope of natural beauty and wide expanses available to visit, and frequently you can encounter alternative and unfamiliar points of interest which you can either stop and explore immediately, or perhaps make a note to schedule a visit at a later time. Sometimes, while on the way to a planned stop, pausing to take in a scenic overlook can provide a wonderful opportunity to be inspired and to appreciate the advantage of serendipity for sharing in nature’s bounty.

By far, some of the most beneficial and inspiring scenes are more often attainable by stepping out of the vehicle, and hiking along the trails and visiting the many visitor centers which can provide helpful information about the most interesting sites contained within the state and national park system. Trails can vary from leisurely and easy walks through tried and true paths for the casual visitor, all the way to some of the more challenging hikes through rugged terrain.

One of my more recent trips into nature’s gardens provided an especially fruitful time in contemplation, and included the chance to review a volume of philosophical writings by Descartes received as a gift from my brother at Christmas. Safely nestled in the bosom of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I encountered a passage that seemed to be describing the very path of my life:

“As soon as I was old enough to emerge from the control of my teachers, I entirely abandoned the study of letters. Resolving to seek no knowledge other than that which could be found in myself or else in the great book of the world, I spent the rest of my youth travelling, visiting courts and armies, mixing with people of diverse temperaments and ranks, gathering various experiences, testing myself in the situations which fortune offered me, and at all times reflecting upon whatever came my way so as to derive some profit from it…”

“…For it seemed to me that much more truth could be found in the reasonings which a man makes concerning matters that concern him than in those which some scholar makes in his study about speculative matters. For the consequences of the former will soon punish the man if he judges wrongly, whereas the latter have no practical consequences and no importance for the scholar except that perhaps the further they are from common sense the more pride he will take in them, since he will have had to use so much more skill and ingenuity in trying to render them plausible. And it is always my most earnest desire to learn to distinguish the true from the false in order to see clearly into my own actions and proceed with confidence in this life.”

–from “Discourse On The Method,” by Rene Descartes, published in 1644

In the weeks to come, I will be enlarging and expanding on the clear association between communing with nature apart from most all familiar modern amenities, (with the exception of the devices for photography and recording my thoughts for posterity) with the emergence of important life lessons, philosophical writings, and a greater well-being as an individual struggling with the meaning and purpose of his remaining years on this earth.

In a recent communication with a dear friend, I reported a brief defense of this association in this way:

“You can almost hear your heart beating in the stillness of early morning in the forest. There is a reflection of life across the still lake waters at dawn. It is humbling and life-affirming to look out at beautiful mountain vistas. All of nature reflects all of life…”

“And don’t forget to unplug your earbuds or headphones and to walk without any sound except what nature provides, and look within. There is more wisdom available in one hour of stillness in Nature’s gardens, than you could ever hope to find…(elsewhere)”

…more to come…